Sunday, February 26, 2012

Louisville Notebook

Peter O'Leary, Robert Archambeau, Vincent Sherry and Joe Donahue, Louisville, Feb. 2012 (photo credit Mark Scroggins)

Yesterday, in a journey that seems in some strange, anachronistic way to have been the true story upon which the 1987 movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was based, I returned from the 40th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, an event everyone seems, understandably, to call "the Louisville conference."  I've been going there on and off for something close to 20 of those 40 years, and always find it congenial. With some 400 attendees, it's a manageable size: next week's AWP Convention here in Chicago will have more than 20 times as many people crowding its panels and workshops.  And it's not just scale that makes the Louisville conference a more palatable event than the AWP.  In Louisville, there's an actual aura of intellectual engagement, whereas the AWP is little different than a boat show: it's all about sales and glad-handing.  At least it can seem that way.

Anyway.  Here, in no particular order, are a few or my personal highlights and lowlights of this year's conference.

Highlight: Louisville as a foodie city.  

When I first started going to the conference in the early '90s, you couldn't eat in Louisville, unless you wanted deep-fried battered whatnots or a well-done hamburger.  I suppose that's an overstatement: the Seelbach Hotel had a decent restaurant, though I could never quite get comfortable in the place, having as it did an ambiance I'd call "white tablecloth Republican."  But every year Louisville seems to get better and better in terms of food.  Proof, the restaurant attached to the 21st Century Museum, is a good place with a hip, but not oppressively hip, vibe to it.  And the Mayan Cafe on Market Street is fantastic, and would stand up to any comparable place in Chicago.  Also, I enjoy the attitude of the staff.  Fourteen of us were gabbing and drinking away when the waitress stepped up and asked if we were from the university.  We said no, but almost: we were with the literature conference.  She told us they'd been trying to guess who we were back in the kitchen, and had concluded we were philosophers.  "Why?" I asked.  "You know," she said, "the beards, the glasses, the lack of women."

Highlight: Conversation in the interstices of things

This is really the reason I come to the conference.  It's hard to pick one bit of conversation as the best.  I had a great time swapping memories of John Matthias with Vincent Sherry, and talking smack about contemporary poetry with Mark Scroggins, and hearing Norman Finkelstein describe the bottle-green corduroy suits of yore, but I think the real winner for me this year was talking St. Augustine with Peter O'Leary.  O'Leary, who used to look like a young Robert Lowell, is now rocking a John Berryman beard (I assume the next midcentury poetry great whose look he'll adopt will be Elizabeth Bishop).  We were talking about his book of poems Luminous Epinoia, a real Teilhard de Chardin-style work of Catholic mysticism, when I mentioned I'd never been able to get a real feel for God-the-Father in the Trinity.  Even as an atheist, I've long had a strong, even a visceral sense of the the relation of the holy spirit to God incarnate as Christ — seeing in it something important about the way one can be both completely beyond an individual or particularized experience, and at the same time embedded in it, suffering and yearning.  But the paternal God never did much for me, at least not until Peter pulled me back to Augustine's book on the Trinity, where the spirit is understanding, the son is will, and the father is something completely unlike the judging, alien authority figure I'd always seen in William Blake's terms as "Nobodaddy" (a jealous figure of secretive laws and arbitrary authority).  In Augustine's view, the father is a kind of memory, a way of thinking of ourselves as inevitably coming into the world interpolated into an existing story.  He's a reminder that whenever we examine things, we're already bound up in particular traditions and histories.  I like that.

Lowlight: Simon Critchley's missing keynote lecture

I admire Simon Critchley's writing — his little introduction to continental philosophy is about as good a short book on the subject for Anglo-American readers as you're going to find, and elsewhere he manages to shed light on Heidegger without uprooting the man from his dark Teutonic forest.  Maybe my admiration for Critchely contributed to my sense of being let down by his plenary lecture.  He was meant to talk about Hamlet but, he told the crowd packing the auditorium, he hadn't gotten round to writing the lecture, so he was going to read us an old piece he'd written about the writer Tom McCarthy, who was present at the conference.  I despise this kind of move, and despise it all the more when it's played as blithely as Critchley played it.  Firstly, there's an enormous egotism to it: "I'm in too much demand to fulfill all my commitments," he might as well have said, "but, of course, I shit gold, so eat this instead."  It wasn't just the A-lister entitlement that rankled, but the discourtesy to the audience, since the piece he read was a fairly close reading of a work of fiction few in the audience had read.

The let-down was kept palpable by the little bits and pieces of the unfinished lecture that Critchley dropped into his talk as asides.  "I see Hamlet as the hero of inauthenticity," he said, intriguingly, and later he defined authenticity as "when the self corresponds with itself, and when the self corresponds with the world."  I wanted to hear more of this, and more of what he meant by inauthenticity, especially when he spoke of the "illegitimate authenticity" of the old regimes of the Cold War eastern bloc, where authenticity was based "on the fake will of the people," and where Havel was right to insist on "living in truth" as an antidote to this.

The most offensive part of Critchley's presentation came in one of his asides, in which he spoke of the art world (or, I should say, of what people in Manhattan mistake for the art world, which is to say, a small and particularly commercialized corner of a larger art world that is largely invisible from that island).  "Artists now are all about appropriation," he said, "they want to come out of grad school, claim a particular site of appropriation and, as quickly as possible, turn it into material gain."  He paused for a moment, then added "of course that's what's so great about the art world: in a way it's so much more honest than what we're doing here, where we act as if there's no money changing hands."

I should perhaps mention that I have no kind of poker face, and that I'm rarely able to restrain myself from expressing derision when I'm moved to do so.  I mean, at the last wedding I attended, a priest described Pope Benedict II as "God's only true representative on earth," and I involuntarily emitted a scornful snort audible throughout the chapel.  Something similar happened after Critchley's art comment: I instinctively gave him the finger.  I don't think he saw, though Mark Scroggins, seated next to me, did, and gave me a grave nod of assent.

My problems with Critchely's remark may be ennumerated thusly:

1.  It was not an analytic statement, it was a gesture toward worldly sophistication and the creation of a glamourous, bad-boyish persona.

2. It was the kind of  frisson seeking reversal of the audience's values with which Oscar Wilde used to play ("seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow," say, or "a man can be happy with any woman, so long as he doesn't love her").  But Wilde did this with charm and wit, and Critchley did it with neither.

3. With regard to the "as if no money were changing hands" bit, I wanted to say: "maybe you're getting paid tonight, Critchley, but not the rest of us so, you know, fuck you."  In fact, Critchley may have had a something of a point here, in that money does change hands at these events.  But since the conference was financed almost entirely by our fees, some of which went to pay him for the plenary address on Hamlet he didn't bother to write, this would argue against his implication that we are all running the kind of scam he sees New York artists running. The situation, instead, indicts him and leaves the audience to whom he says "j'accuse!" blameless.

Highlight: Joe Donahue, Robert Zamsky, and Peter O'Leary talk about John Taggart

The panel on which these three spoke was the best discussion of John Taggart's poetry I'm ever likely to hear.  O'Leary broke Taggart's career down into three phases (a phase concerned with objectivist experiences; a phase concerned with minimalist incantation, and a phase concerned with meditative plaint) and did so with the unalloyed enthusiasm that makes for a wonderfully non-professorial break with academic norms, a kind of amateurism in the best possible sense of the word.  Zamsky spoke of Taggart's "Drum Thing" as the moment when the poet found his own voice, because in connecting his work to John Coltrane's song of the same name Taggart released himself from expressive lyricism and entered an imaginative world of pre-existing aesthetic objects out of which he could fashion an art that didn't rely so heavily on the self.  Joe Donahue spoke of Taggart's poems for the Rothko chapel, and made some intriguing remarks about Taggart's characteristic linguistic repetitions-with-variations.  These are, said Donahue, an allegorizing of the relation of the individual to the group: the variant lines harmonize with one another while retaining difference and even dissonance, much as a church choir harmonizes voices even as members participating in this group practice may maintain differences of conscience from the words of the hymn being sung.  Later, Donahue spoke of how Taggart would establish a pattern of repetition, and then drop some completely incongruous element into the verbal structure.  He wouldn't leave it as an anomaly, though: out of a kind of horror at unmeaningness, Taggart would somehow incorporate the anomaly into a newer, more encompassing pattern.  In the Q & A session after the panel Coleridge's idea of organic form came up, and it seemed to me a perfect fit for Taggart's process as described by Donahue, since with organic form nothing can be pre-ordained, but nothing can be accidental.  This locates Taggart as a kind of Romantic (an idea that disturbed the poet Norman Finkelstein: later, while driving me back to the Brown Hotel, he looked over at me and said "think of what that means, to have a horror of the unmeaning!").

Highlight: Mark Scroggins on Pound, Vince Sherry on Decadence

I spoke on a panel with two of my heroes among contemporary critics, Mark Scroggins and Vince Sherry.  Mark unpacked the meaning of the phrase "yeux glacques" in Pound's "Mauberley," tracing in the various meanings of the term an implicit etymological argument, on Pound's part, for the decline of a brilliant classical culture into a dull and ennui-ridden modernity (Scroggins also offered an argument for reading Pound etymologically, which involved a look at Ruskin as an under-acknowledged influence on Pound).  Vince Sherry took on the matter of the rechristening of the Decadence of the 1890s as "Symbolism," and pointed out what was lost in the transition.  Vince managed to talk me out of my admiration for Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, which had argued for the basis of the symbolist aesthetic in American transcendentalism, and therefore made symbolism into a kind of aesthetic of the new.  This, Sherry pointed out, was a falsification of the sources of the aesthetic we associate with Mallarmé and company, and hid the association of the aesthetic with a declining social order.

Lowlight: Louisville as a microcosm of our nation

When I'm at a conference for any length of time, I tend to need a break from the listening, the talking, and the heavy drinking, so I usually find some time to walk around the host city for a couple of hours.  At the Louisville conference I did this late at night, and have to say the flâneur experience was a bit depressing.  If downtown Louisville has added a lot of galleries and microbrew bars and hip restaurants over the years, it also seems to have accumulated ever more street people, wandering in ones and twos through the night, or lying stretched out on the sidewalk, asleep next to a paper cup used for begging.  The trend of the city seems to have been to grow at the top and the bottom of the wealth & privilege scale.  In this, it's not unlike Chicago, or America.  And it's just not fucking right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Archambeau World Tour, February-March 2012

The motorcade has already pulled up outside Stately Archambeau Manor, the engines of the limousines and auxiliary support vehicles purring, the chauffeurs trading jokes and Russian cigarettes under the porte-cochère, where they seek shelter from the day's  light drizzle, as well as from the occasional gusts of rhetoric emanating from my study window.  Soon they will be whisking me away, and I'll wallow in the cocooned comfort of the luxurious passenger cabin, giggling as I repeatedly raise and lower the window separating me from the driver.  But where will we be going?

Glad you asked.  There will be two destinations in the days ahead:

On Friday, February 24th, I'll be speaking at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900.  These are the details:

Panel on Modernist Poetry and the Nineteenth Century 
Friday February 24th, 1:30 PM – 3:00 PM 
Room: Humanities  117
 My paper is called “Victorian Expectations, Modern Conditions: Real and Imagined Audiences for Modernist Poetry” but don't let that deter you.  I'll be accompanied by Mark Scroggins, who will speak on “The Questing, Passive Gaze: Ruskin and Pound's Yeux Glauques”and Vincent Sherry, who will discuss“The Codes of Decadence: Modernism and Its Discontents.”

Then, on Friday March 2, I'll be in Oak Park, Illinois (Frank Lloyd Wright's town, adjacent to Chicago) for an off-site, in this case a way-off-site, poetry reading during the AWP Convention.  The details are:

“Route 66” AWP Off-Site Reading 
Friday, March 2, 3:30-5:30pm 
Buzz Café, 905 S. Lombard Ave, Oak Park, Illinois  
On board for the reading will be the incredible Mark Wallace, the devastatingly handsome Grant Jenkins, and others.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Poetic Pluralism on Trial

Back in 1998, it still seemed marginally plausible to believe that much of the grand expanse of American poetry could be divided into two fields, one centered in Iowa City lyricism, the other in Buffalo language writing.   It was then that a much younger and more naive version of the present humble blogger wrote in praise of Chicago, in the first editorial for Samizdat.  "Chicago has fostered poets," I claimed, "without pressuring them to conform too closely to the establishment or the counter-establishment.  It is in the interstices between orthodoxies that poetry finds innovation and life, and this is why Chicago has become one of the good places for poetry."  It was the first in a series of essays in which I tried to go to bat for pluralism.  I wanted to say that confessional lyricism and language writing were both important, and that good work could be produced in both of those idioms, and in a whole range of other modes.  In the years that followed I like to think my understanding of the contours of the American poetic field has become subtler and more detailed, but I also like to think that my pluralism has remained intact.

On the face of it pluralism is among the least exciting and provocative of positions.  Who, after all, could really get worked up at someone who advocates letting a thousand flowers bloom, who wishes for nothing more than that we live, let live, and try to find things of value in works that come from traditions other than our own?  Who indeed? Well, as it turns out, just about anyone who strongly believes in what they've committed to.  I was reminded of this recently when reading Keith Tuma's On Leave, in which Tuma, whose criticism both explains and advocates experimental poetics, writes of the difficulty he had in maintaining his friendship with the immensely charming formalist poet Michael Donaghy, whom he knew when they both studied at the University of Chicago.  Differences in poetics mattered between those two guys (both of whom, I should add in a pluralistic aside, I admire).  And I've had people take me on for my pluralism, too, sometimes quite effectively: if you bother to root around in some of the comments on old posts of this blog, for example, you'll find Keston Sutherland letting me have it for a lot of things, including, if I remember correctly, my pluralism.  If you're seriously committed to a particular program, pluralistic poetics can look like a cop-out.

Rather than revisiting any old arguments, I'd like to put my own pluralism on trial today.  For that purpose I've put myself in the defendant's chair, called Judge Lance Ito out from whatever room they send you to after your fifteen minutes of fame have expired, and summoned two imaginary lawyers to do the talking.

THE CASE FOR THE  PROSECUTION will be made by a thin man in black, his turtleneck unwrinkled, his great bald dome gleaming above his expensive glasses, his elegant, pencil-skirted assistant whispering in his ear intermittently.

THE CASE FOR THE DEFENSE will be made by a puffy, sweaty man in a worn brown corduroy blazer.  I am unnerved to see that his shirt is only partly tucked in, and that his briefcase contains a tuna sandwich, Doritos, and what looks like a pair of extra socks.

After a shuffling of papers, the prosecutor speaks, pronouncing the word "professor" with just a touch of icy contempt.

THE PROSECUTION: Let me begin by reminding the court that we are here to determine whether Professor Archambeau's longstanding poetic pluralism is a defensible position, or an affront to all those who truly care about poetry.  It is, as I shall demonstrate, the latter.  I call to the witness stand an academic whose standing, it will be agreed, exceeds that of Professor Archambeau: G.W.F. Hegel, late of the University of Berlin.  I thank you, Mr. Hegel, for taking the trouble to appear here from beyond the grave.

MR. HEGEL: Ja, ja, gut.  Indeed.  Though why you couldn't simply cite my books is beyond me.  It's quite a long commute from the circle of hell reserved for bad writers, you know.

THE PROSECUTION: Would you speak, please, to the issue of pluralism in the matter of aesthetics.

MR. HEGEL:  There was a time, you know, when poetry, and all art, mattered to people, and mattered as something powerful, not merely as something interesting.  Plato, of course, cast the poets out of the Republic, even though he admired them: they were too important for him to tolerate, because they were too important to the people.  They could move the masses, they could change the beliefs of the populace,  they could sway not just a few aesthetes, but the entire polis, and they couldn't be tolerated.  I didn't live in an age when art mattered like that, still less do you.  I, and you, live in an age when science prevails as a way of knowing and of making things happen, not art.  Art does not disappear under such conditions, but it affects people differently.  "However splendid the effigies of the Greek gods may look," I have written, "and whatever dignity we may find in the images of God the Father, Christ, and the Virgin Mary, it is of no use: we do not bend our knees before them."  Art, since the triumph of science, is at the periphery of our society, and no one goes to war over whether images should or shouldn't adorn a church.  Art has worked itself out, and the reason people like this Archambeau can say they admire poems in all sorts of different styles and idioms is that art simply doesn't matter to such people.  Poetry is interesting to people like him, not vital.  He is symptomatic of an age in which art has become marginal.  

THE PROSECUTION: Thank you, Mr. Hegel.  No further questions.

THE DEFENSE: If I may, Mr. Hegel: what are we to make of the partisans of one or another sort of poetry?  If we live in an age when poetry is merely interesting, and not vital, how do we account for those who would say "Jeremy Prynne is good, or right, and therefore Glyn Maxwell is bad, or wrong"?

MR. HEGEL: Those who truly care, those for whom different kinds of art aren't simply different but worse or somehow (politically, ethically, morally) wrong are throwbacks, of course, to an earlier age, survivals within our age in the way that Greek civilization survived inside Rome.  But we can say this: at least poetry matters to them, as it surely does not to the defendant, a modern-era dilettante if ever there was one.

THE DEFENSE: I see.  Well, I'd like to call on another witness now, whom we've fetched in with some difficulty from the cycle of eternal return.  Mr. Nietzsche will now take the stand... ah.  Thank you.  Mr. Nietzsche, what do you make of the most extreme partisans of particular kinds of poetry, those who condemn the works of other schools of poetry?

[A great shriek of feedback comes from the microphone on the witness stand as it becomes entangled in Nietzsche's mustache]

MR. NIETZSCHE: What kind of untermensch wired this place for sound? Hah? Bah!  Well.  Of course we must look at the partisans of various schools of poetry — when these schools are not the dominant one — as people compelled by ressentiment, by a sense of injustice and injury.  They look at the prizes and accolades awarded to those who write in the dominant poetic styles, and they grind their teeth in frustration and outrage.  They feel that such poetry isn't just different, it is evil, because its prominence deprives them of what they crave.  They wish to see it cast down, and yearn for a great redemption in which they and their kind of poetry are redeemed into the light.  This, of course, is slave morality.  "It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey," I have said, and we shouldn't be surprised when the lambs talk to each other, saying "these birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb—should he not be good?"

THE DEFENSE: So you'd say, then, that those who condemn pluralism are just envious?


[Lance Ito nods slightly, though it is unclear whether he sustains the objection, or is simply nodding off in a stupor.  The prosecutor pounces on the opportunity, while the defense attorney seems absorbed in trying to unwrap his sandwich].

THE PROSECUTION: Mr. Nietzsche, does this not imply that Mr. Archambeau's pluralism, in contradistinction to the alleged slave morality of his critics, is an aristocratic ethos?

MR. NIETZSCHE: Yes! Or close enough.  If he actually has some preferences, but is willing to tolerate the things he doesn't really care for, that would be true.  The birds of prey look on the lambs without any real hatred or sense that the lambs are evil.  Rather, they say of the lambs "we bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb."

THE DEFENSE: [with a mouth full of tuna sandwich] Surely you don't mean that Archambeau would eat poets he doesn't like!

MR. NIETZSCHE: Him?  No, he'd hardly have the will to overcome his own hesitation.  He'd just write a lukewarm review, with mild condescension hidden behind seemingly neutral language.  I've seen him do it.  But in a general sense, his pluralism implies a kind of privilege—just as the resentfulness of the partisans of particular styles masks a slavish ressentiment.

THE PROSECUTION: Just so.  Partisans seek justice for their excluded and despised poetry, while Professor Archambeau, ensconced in the ivory tower, looks down on them.

THE DEFENSE: I must object.  This line of argument implies that Mr. Archambeau advocates for a particular style, and merely tolerates others.  I assure you: my client has never had a clear aesthetic conviction in his life!

[Archambeau looks distinctly uncomfortable, shifts in his chair, and, brow furrowed, seems about to speak, when the attorney for the defense speaks again]. 

THE DEFENSE: I must now call my final witness, the late Mr. Leszek Kolakowski, whom some of you will know for his devastating critique of Marx in three volumes, Main Currents of Marxism.  I know this may seem strange, but I assure you his comments will be most relevant to proving the defense.  Welcome, Mr. Kolakowski.

MR. KOLAKOWSKI: Make it quick.  We're poking Stalin with sharp sticks in the afterlife, and it'll be my turn as soon as Orwell tires out.

THE DEFENSE: Very well.  Could I prevail upon you to read a passage from your study Modernity on Endless Trial—the part I texted you about?

MR. KOLAKOWSKI: Yes, yes.  Here it is: "A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region.  Often in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike with the image of the Emperor.  I said to him, “you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior it is because we are indifferent, both to their civilization, and to our own.”  There it is.  But what relevance this passage on the fate of civilizations could have to these picayune proceedings is beyond me.

THE DEFENSE: Ah! Yes.  Well, the point is this: isn't my client, by virtue of his pluralism, free from any charges of insensitivity and cultural arrogance?  He's no conquistador — I mean, just look at his paunch and soft hands!  He couldn't destroy an Aztec temple if he wanted to, and I assure you he wouldn't — no more than he'd write a negative review of a book just because it came from some poetic movement with which he had no affiliation.  He's a man of peace and tolerance!  The defense rests.

THE PROSECUTION: I confess I must shake my head in disbelief.  Can my colleague on the defense really misunderstand Mr. Kolakowski's passage so profoundly?  Can't he see that Kolakowski defends western civilization against its critics?  Can't he see that what Mr. Kolakowski says only affirms Mr. Hegel's charge that people like the defendant don't really care enough about anything in particular to have beliefs?  Indifference, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is my charge against the defendant.  If he truly cared about something, he'd be less ready to tolerate anything.  The prosecution rests, as well.

JUDGE LANCE ITO: ...What? What?  We're done then?  I leave it to the jury.  If the charge won't fit, you must acquit.  Who wants to go for a smoothie?  My boss at Orange Julius says I'm getting good at making them.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Misremembering Szymborska

Since the death of Wisława Szymborska a week ago, the Nobel-winning Polish poet has been memorialized countless times.  Generally, the media tributes have been quite accurate, although there's been something of a tendency to make her sound more grandmotherly than seems right, with Newsweek calling her an "old Polish poetess" and The New York Times calling her "gentle and reclusive."  This kind of characterization takes the edge off her, and hides so many things about her poetry, which often cast a cold eye on tragedy and the darker patches of history.  

This, though, isn't the kind of "misremembering" I have in mind.  Instead, I'm thinking of my own misremembering of a Szymborska poem years ago.  I'd read the poem, "The End and the Beginning" in Clare Cavanagh's translation in The New Republic, and loved it immediately.  In the weeks that followed, I'd run the poems lines and images through my mind, or talk about them to friends, urging them to have a look at Szymborska's work.  A few months later, when the book containing the poem came out, I rushed down to the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore by the University of Chicago to get a copy.  On the train back home, I read the poem again, and realized I'd remembered it incorrectly, in essence making my own poem out of the poem Szymborska had written.  The only thing for it was to write my version of the poem, which had evolved, by now, not only into a warped version of the original, but into a poem about misremembering, and about the conversation different poems can have with each other.  Here's Cavanagh's translation of the Szymborska poem:

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post 
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.

But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

And here's the poem I ended up writing in response, a kind of sampling-plus-morphing of the original, along with reflections on the nature of misremembering (it's in my book Home and Variations):

Misremembering Szymborska

I read your poem in a magazine, the one about how
after every war, someone

has to tidy up, about how,
as years trudge on with shovel and with trowel,

bridges are rebuilt, windows glazed, doors set back
into their jambs, until someone,

propped broom in an arm's neat crook, a hand-back wiping
at his brow, tells how it was to a nodding neighbor, until

the task-bound crowd of a rebuilt city finds such talk
a little boring,

until those who were there
are gone, and those who knew them, until, at last,

someone lies in the grass, over all the old and rusted arguments,
"a corn stalk in his teeth,

gawking at clouds."  I read it, there, but
remembered it differently.  Somehow

in the tired and task-bound wearied mind those final,
placid, resting limbs

became a body in the earth, not on it,
a corn stalk growing from that place in which it lay.

I see your poem now, again.  "The End and the Beginning,"
and know I've carried my mistake for months.

That soldier I remembered — that's what he must have been,
that body under earth — he would have dreamed

of days spent gawking, on a hillside, at the clouds.
Perhaps he fought for just such days, that he should have them, perhaps

that dream is where he lingers even now.
Perhaps he can lie beneath your dreamer, a rightness, there,

each in his way the other's end.  Perhaps, too,
we could say my poem lies in the grass of your poem's dreaming,

forgetful, pulls at cornstalks, gawks at sky.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

W.B. Yeats, Madame Blavatsky, and the Mesmeric Force of Beards

"Yes," wrote the 24 year old William Butler Yeats in 1889, "my beard is off!"

The declaration comes in a letter to Katharine Tynan, an Irish poet and novelist some four years his senior. Those of you familiar with Yeats' constant vacillations over all things won't be surprised at his primary emotion on the momentous occasion: ambivalence.  " beard is off," he says, "and whether for good or ill I do not know."

Yeats' secondary emotion upon the loss of his beard won't be a surprise either, at least not to those familiar with his spiritualism, his Theosophy, and his susceptibility to anyone with a Ouija board tucked under her arm.  Invoking the name of London's most notorious spiritualist, Yeats continues his letter: "Madame Blavatsky promised me a bad illness of three months through the loss of the mesmeric force that collects in a beard."

I cannot speak to the mesmeric force of beards, though I do confess to an instinctive distrust of clean-shaven men.  But was the loss of Yeats' beard "for good or ill" at the aesthetic (as opposed to the mesmeric) level?  You be the judge.  The photo above depicts Yeats not long before the loss of his beard.  The photo below comes from the 1890s, when (if I may editorialize) the transformation from Dashing Young Rake to Canned Ham with Hair was complete.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Reading, Mid December 2011-January 2012

I used to post an end-of-year report on all the books I'd read during the prior year.  I was inspired to do so by Steve Evans, who asks people to send him lists of notable books they've read during the prior year, and Mark Scroggins, an unreformed list-keeper, who used to post lists of his adventures among obscure texts.  I haven't had my act together enough to keep lists of my annual reading, but I've been missing doing the write-ups.  I'm not sure why, unless it's the sense one gets, in making a few comments on each book, that one hasn't entirely forgotten everything from all those hours slumped in a chair staring at words on a page.

So I've started keeping a list again.  The criterion for inclusion is simple: the book has to be something I've read in cold blood (that is, cover to cover).  This means a lot of my actual reading gets left out, including most of the contemporary poetry I read, since I tend to encounter it in journals and online.

This list includes the books I've read since mid-December of last year until the end of January.  I'm surprised that it doesn't amount to more than my usual rate of about two books a week, in part because as of December 15 I've been on sabbatical, in part because I spent about half of the last six weeks with a miserable cold and couldn't do any real writing.  Also, while some of the books were cinderblock huge, some were svelte little books of poetry one could read during a commuter train ride.

There's a pretty heavy skew to lit crit and biography, much more so than during most comparable periods of time for me.  This has to do with my ramp-up to writing a chapter about Yeats for the book I'm working on.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are the books:

Literary Criticism

The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats, ed. Marjorie Howes and John Kelly

The Cambridge Companion series is generally quite good, but this volume is a bit uneven.  Or maybe it just seems that way to me, since I've got some pretty defined views on Yeats.  Declan Kiberd wrote a chapter on Yeats as a critic that's as wonderful as everything Kiberd writes, and that makes the fascinating point that "Yeats achieved a real profundity of thought because he was willing to say things that he did not fully understand until long afterward," which is exactly right.  George Watson's essay on Yeats in the 1890s is good, too.

The Reactionaries: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia, by John R. Harrison

One of the things I learned when I was working in a used book store back in the 1990s was that the kind of books of litcrit that professors were likely to dismiss as out of date were often worth looking at, just as a way of breaking with contemporary ideas and ways of writing.  Harrison's book, which deals with Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, was published in 1966, and feels like the kind of book a young scholar would write back then.  Harrison argues with, accuses, and sometimes almost face-slaps his chosen writers with a refreshing directness.  One senses he'd had it with an older generation of critics letting the right-winginess of the modernists slide.

On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word, by Angela Leighton

This is very similar to the book I've been trying to write, if perhaps a bit more concerned with fiction and a bit less with history.  It's very good.  I hear Leighton's a poet — must look her up in that regard.

A Reader's Guide to Edwardian Literature, by Anthea Trodd

This is short, clear, and useful, if you want to get a general sense of who was writing what for which audience during the years 1901-1914 (the Edwardian period officially ended in 1910, but Trodd's willing to stretch it out to the beginning of the war).  The tone is neutral, but one senses that Trodd is on the side of the popular novelists, and against the perceived elitism of incipient modernism and leftover aestheticism.  Also, she takes particular relish in quoting passages in which writers look down on "womanly" writing and praise "manly" virtues, which only means that she's as much a creature of her time's gender norms as those writers were of theirs.

Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry, by Christopher Caudwell

I've got two copies of this book from the man who, had he not died young in the Spanish Civil War, would have been another George Orwell.  One copies is cleanly printed, but I couldn't find it when I wanted to, and I ended up re-reading a print-on-demand copy made from an original with blurry and broken type.  I'd only gone to it to look up a passage, and got sucked into reading the whole thing again. It's an old-school Marxist analysis of the English literary tradition, and W.H. Auden liked it a lot.

The Theater of the Absurd, by Martin Esslin

I wrote a blog post that cited this a lot.  It's the book that named the movement.  Esslin is sharp, if perhaps a bit more of a cheerleader for his subject than I like critics to be.


The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of Human History, by William H. McNeill and John Robert McNeill

The McNeills are a father-son team of academic historians, turning their hand to a more popular version of history.  Knowing their work, it's interesting to guess who wrote which passages.  Anytime there's an aside on the social importance of dance and ritual, you can be pretty sure it's by McNeill the elder; anytime you read something in a Jared Diamond climate-and-crops mode (about, say, how the Parthians avoided ravage by the Huns because they learned how to plant alfalfa, and so could support big horses that could carry armored riders) you can bet it's the younger McNeill.  I like books that take on a big picture like this, especially when my main research is zeroing in on something quite specific.

Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats by William M. Murphy

This is the most complete biography of Yeats' father you'll ever find.  Murphy has all the virtues I lack: diligence, patience, the instincts of a completists, and the humility to make one single scholarly project the center of his life.  His book is the product of reading every damn scrap of paper by everyone ever associated with any of the Yeats family.  It is also utterly, completely devoid of anything like an idea, a focus, or a shape, other than the paratactic "and then, and then..."  I think Murphy knew too much about John Butler Yeats to do anything so vulgar as to maintain a thesis about the man.  Guys like me need guys like Murphy to put together books like this, which we need as raw material for more speculative writing.  I don't imagine guys like Murphy would much care for the kind of things guys like me write: they'd constantly want to stop us mid-argument and offer qualifications and bet-hedgings until everything collapsed in a pile of careful detail.

John Butler Yeats, by Douglas N. Archibald

Just the facts, ma'am.  And a sense that Archibald really likes the subject of his book.

Yeats: The Man and the Masks by Richard Ellmann

This is the bio of Yeats I used when I taught a seminar on him last year.  I don't think there's a better one.  Some people find Ellmann a bit impatient with some of the hokier elements of Yeats' ouija-board side, but I don't.  I see why Yeats went in that direction — it just solved so many of his problems, such as refuting his father's atheism without falling into the arms of the muscular Christianity of the middle classes from which he felt so alienated.  But it just gets a bit too close to the realm of deliberate self-deception on Yeats' part, and deliberate self-deception ranks up there with overt self-promotion among things to which I am allergic.

Autobiographies by William Butler Yeats

A hodge-podge collection of miscellaneous writings, but it's just gold if you take it less as a statement about the world than as a statement about how Yeats chose to see the world.  This must be my third time though it all.

Letters of John Butler Yeats, edited by Joseph Hone

I think there must be two versions of this, since the pagination of the version I own does not match up with the notes I took from a library edition.  Anyway: JBY was nothing like a systematic thinker, but he loved talking about art and ideas, and he loved making big generalizations, sometimes directly in contradiction with himself ("the artist must be autonomous!" "the artist must serve the people!").  I read these in tandem with William Butler Yeats' letters, though I didn't read the entire volume of WBY's letters, so I'm not listing it here.  Anyway: I can see why father and son ended up in some real shouting matches.  JBY is as charismatic as he must have been infuriating.

On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes, by Keith Tuma

There aren't really that many anecdotes in this: it's more of a daybook of a scholar on sabbatical, cross-cutting items from daily experience with the news, the sufferings of the Chicago Cubs, memories of family and friends, and reflections on the meaning and nature of the anecdote.  It's odd to read it, since Tuma's life, reading, and circle of friends has some significant overlap with my own.


Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano

This is a collection of short pieces beginning with the mythical creation of the world and ending with the present, covering the whole world but skewing toward the Americas (Galeano is from Uruguay).  There's a strong thesis, which is that the poor, the dark-skinned, women, gay people, revolutionaries, free-thinkers, and heretics are more or less consistently fucked over by powerful bastards.  I found myself cheering for the good guys so often it became tedious.  I mean, I'm on Galeano's side, but I wanted something more miraculous and less preachy.  The book is all pulpit and no altar.


Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles by Mark Scroggins

I think I'm going to review this, so I won't say much about it here except that you really should listen to John Zorn's album Torture Garden before you read this.  You can probably get by without reading Octave Mirbeau's novel of the same name, though.

Messages by Piotr Gwiazda

If Scroggins' book is crabbed, clotted, and (I mean this in a good way) spastically angry, this book is almost the opposite: meditative and eloquent.  Gwiazda was born in Poland, and there's something of that quiet Wislawa Szymbourska-style interest in history intersecting everyday life going on here.


The Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1966, edited by Mike Topp

I was poking around with a few old issues of The Evergreen Review that I have lying around, and got the itch for more, so I ordered a copy of this.  There's a lot to like (John Rechy, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, a lot of good stuff in translation) and I even encountered some writers I'd never seen, including Patsy Southgate.  They don't make journals like this anymore, though that's really a function of greater openness: The Evergreen Review was one of the few venues for sexual themes, for queer writing, and for European modernism in translation.  The lack of a similar journal now speaks, in many ways, to improved conditions for the presentation of this kind of material.  Note that I may be cheating by listing this here, since I actually skipped a number of pieces that I'd read before in other contexts.

Horses by Philip Shaw

This isn't a book about Clydesdales and Shetland ponies.  It's about Patti Smith's miraculous album Horses.  Shaw mostly avoids the purple prose of the rock writer, in part because he's an academic.  He does throw a few terms from literary theory around, though, and is a bit loose with regard to what those terms mean.